Above: Me at a Pilbara waterhole, 1993
‘Some ways I think about ‘place’
“And I’m thinking of a place, and it feels so very real.” *
I think about place as physical, geographic locations, with each place different despite similarities.
These places also exist as constructs, or ideas, or ideals, which sometimes sit at odds to the physicality of the place. The way we make a place in our lovely little brains calls upon far more than the physical and the material ‘bones’ of the place, it is laden with what the place means and often it is laden with what we want the place to mean. Still, the geography and the physicality of place are important markers of the place and I’m keen to always acknowledge the very dirt we stand on, remembering that we ‘stand on holy ground.’
Ironically, we are becoming more geographically literate without becoming geographically experienced. Digital media’s constant flow of neatly processed and presented images that travel us to places we’ll likely never set foot is a paradox worth unpacking. Just because we’ve seen an image of a place doesn’t mean we have experienced the place, for better or for worse. There is an endless list of places that probably ‘look’ better in a photograph, and travellers can sometimes wonder if they have missed something or mistimed their journey when they feel that their expectations aren’t met or they are unable to compute the location in the same way they can compute an image on a screen.
Perhaps our experience of a place needs to access the physicality of the place to be purified; until we experience a particular place in that particular place, we should hold that pre-experience lightly lest we have been sold fool’s gold.
I think about place as a liminal space, like a small town that you pass through on the way somewhere.
You might not stay there, but you went there, and so it becomes another dot on the journeyline.
I think about place as a location of experience, the setting where something significant happens/happened.
Feeling, sensation, change all become part of my experience and how I remember that very place. This ‘inbetweenness’ of place can easily take the form of dreamlike experience; we were passing through, were we ever there?
I think about place as image.
Or, at least recorded as image, but this doesn’t necessarily work backwards: image can’t always create place.
I’m wondering if the proliferation of digital photography and dissemination of image via social media has made ‘image’ the gateway to ‘place’? We are learning to process our understanding of place via image, but we are failing to learn to process place in a deeper sense; we are losing touch with the traditions that promised story and sacredness. Partly, this is because they are not our images. The image we are given of a place is a corporate, not personal, image and we have not experienced the genesis of that image and so we do not own it.
I think about place as memory.
Memory can help us retain our own images, but memory doesn’t always need an image. I can remember the feeling of places that I cannot remember the image of. Brisk, cold winds on semi-desert highways, when we would have sandwiches and little packets of raisins. The wind is almost sharp and it can leave your lips dry and cracked within half an hour; it’s ironically both hot and cold on your skin, so when you step behind the car out of the wind, you suddenly feel the heat of the sun. And always thirsty; a never ending need for water to quench this confusing hot-yet-cold sensation. I believe strongly in the power of image but not enough to let it replace memory and embodied experience. Again, fool’s gold…
I think about place as knowledge.
When I talk about bodily experiences of intense heat or intense cold, I could very well be referring to the landscape too, with its longing for drenching rain; maybe the experience I remember is a shared experience with the land around me? The danger of losing touch with these modes of experiencing place is that they are being replace by commercial modes of experience. What I mean here is that when we ‘forget how to remember’ through our body and spirit, all we will have is the subtly loaded advertising image. The place becomes the podium for the product, for the message, for the commercial experience. And if we are not careful to hold to other ways of understanding place (and, probably moreso, experience), then all we will be able to use to access place will be commercial modes. ‘Pic, or it didn’t happen’…
Experience, memory, physicality and image (personal, not corporate). When we lose these systems of making meaning of place, we have little left to offer ourselves by way of shared experience, except what we have in turn been offered by careful brand positioning: ‘the holiness of this place is a testimony to this product’. The product makes the place, and ‘place-making’ has been reappropriated to a commercial exercise alongside the balance sheet.
The creative call, then, is to remember place and remember how to make sense of place, to return to personal ways of experience.
To be there.
*Thinking of a Place, The War on Drugs